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June 29, 2017, 11:33 a.m.
Business Models

Talking Points Memo doubled its subscribers in a year — now it’s trying to find new extras for them

“We’ve learned a lot over the last few years about how to construct a business model that allows a substantial but still relatively small news organization to thrive.”

Josh Marshall, the founder of the liberal political news site Talking Points Memo (which turns 17 this year), isn’t shy about sharing numbers and publicly setting goals for the site. About a year ago, he told my colleague Ricardo Bilton that TPM had about 11,000 paying Prime subscribers, and that he hoped to be near 20,000 by the end of 2016. By the end of the year, TPM had 18,900 people paying $50 a year or $5 a month.

Today, TPM has 21,500 paying subscribers, and Marshall’s goal is to hit 30,000 — and have 50 percent of the site’s revenue coming from membership — by the end of the year. It’s a doable but steep goal, which means the site needs to add new incentives for people to pay up.

Marshall doesn’t want that incentive to be putting a large portion of the existing site behind a paywall. “This is not something we’ve considered and opted against. I’ve never considered it. And it won’t happen,” he wrote in a post on the site this month. Instead, he wrote about an idea that would give Prime subscribers an early peek at what its reporters are seeing and hearing:

One of things that has been central to TPM, through all its various permutations going on twenty years online has been breaking down the fourth wall of political journalism….A decade ago this approach made us almost unique in the space. That is much less the case now. But how we do it is still quite distinct and different in many ways. What I have been mulling is finding ways to add more of that, more of that explanation of mechanics of what’s happening and ability to see over the horizon and have that be where we focus on creating that extra layer of Prime only content. Let me give you just one example. I don’t know if we’re going to do this or not. It’s just the kind of thing I’ve been considering.

I have my hands in many different parts of this operation on the edit side and business side. So not infrequently I’ll come back from a meeting or finish up working on one thing and I’ll want to know the status of a specific story. And here I’m not talking about a discrete article or post but the story itself — James Comey’s firing, the new Supreme Court decisions, did KT McFarland ever really get fired or not, what goes into McConnell strong arming a Trumpcare bill before the July 4th recess. I need a quick operational take to get my bearings. So I’ll ask whichever one of our editors is working that story for a quick run-down. Usually what I’ll get is a handful of entirely unadorned sentences, with none of the lede and story framing of an article or a post. It’s just telling me here’s the latest, here’s what we think is about to happen and here’s what we’re most focused on finding out. That’s what I need to know to base decisions on, get my bearings, know what to expect over the next 72 hours.

I’d like to be able to share those updates with readers. Some of the information couldn’t be made public of course. There might be confidential or unverified information. But broadly speaking, most of those details are ones we could share with readers but don’t for a handful of logistical reasons, time constraint reasons, format reasons and simple habit. But I would like to — mostly because it’s a general guide star for me that things that help me understand the news in real time would be helpful to other avid political news consumers too.

I spoke with Marshall about adding this “explanation of mechanics,” the site’s plans to add investigative reporters (“dramatically more relevant now that we have President Trump, who obviously is a sort of a job-creation machine for investigative journalists”), and why he’s been adding so many drawings to his tweets. Our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity, is below.

Laura Hazard Owen: You wrote a couple weeks ago that Talking Points Memo has seen a big increase in subscribers. What do you attribute that to? Is there a Trump bump?

Josh Marshall:: Yes, but it overlaps with efforts on our own part, things that are really tied to TPM. We’ve been executing our plan to increase our number of subscribers going back more than 18 months. We gained subscribers rapidly in the second half of last year because we did a drive, we were adding new features to our membership system, and so forth — we were growing for reasons that I think were largely tied to TPM. Then, after Trump won, we got a big burst of new subscribers that were clearly reacting to Trump’s victory. We’ve had growth since then. But our current subscribership is not heavily based on people subscribing because of Trump.

Owen: How many paying subscribers do you have now?

Marshall: 21,500. To give you a sense of the arc over the last few years: At the end of 2014, we had 3,400 paying subscribers. At the end of 2015 we had 9,100. At the end of 2016, we had 18,900 subscribers.

Owen: So it’s almost doubled since we wrote about you guys about a year ago.

Marshall: Yeah — as you get more revenue from subscriptions, it makes you able to focus more on the things that your core audience wants. There’s a feedback loop.

Owen: Tell me more about this extra content idea you’re thinking about — you referred to it as a “kind of very limited paywall” in your post.

Marshall: The idea really comes from a set of sort of overlapping imperatives that we have, and I laid them out in that post.

One of them is that our reason for existing is to publish news reporting to a large audience. We don’t want to paywall most of what we do. We also anticipate that even if our subscription efforts go as well as we want them to this year, we’re still going to have at least half of our revenues coming from advertising, so we don’t want to dramatically decrease pageviews, because that will affect advertising.

What we are looking for are things that are are only really going to be of interest to our core readership, people who are logical subscribers to TPM. Things that fall into that category, both that might not have a lot of relevance to our broader audience as opposed to our core audience, and things that the core audience is really going to be into. That is where we come up with giving people more detail, more transparency, more guidance in understanding the stories of the day and our reporting, as the the key thing we want to focus in on. One of the possibilities was what I discussed in that post: having short editor explainers of the status of a story at a given moment. It’s really kind of putting together those different imperatives and seeing what fits into that mix as the kind of things that make sense to be the added layer of value, the deeper insight into stories that are, you know, the biggest things that fit that are of the biggest value to our core readers and things that are likely to entice them to become paying members.

Owen: How do you see delivering the additional content to them?

Marshall: I think it’ll probably be just fairly conventional in web terms, only available to logged-in subscribers. I think that these will basically be things that are on the site but restricted to subscribers. I think where it may go a little beyond that is things like desktop notifications, notifications on the site, but I’m not envisioning like a separate newsletter. It’s basically stuff on the site, just a small layer of things that you can only access if you’re a subscriber.

This builds on something that I think has always been very core to the site, which is sort of breaking down the journalistic fourth wall and narrating stories — giving readers insight into the process of reporting and things that, just because of format reasons, are hard to fit into sort of conventional genres of journalistic writing. In that sense, it’s very organic to what the site has always been about, going back almost two decades now.

Owen: And all the little drawings you’ve been doing on Twitter — is that a part of this?

Marshall: That is just purely a personal indulgence. I think just kind of for myself, it’s been an interesting way to convey certain ideas and communicate in a different medium than I usually do, but it’s not connected to anything we’re doing in terms of disruption of the site or the business model or anything. It’s just a separate Josh thing.

Owen: What sites do you see as models?

Marshall: There’s one site very far afield from TPM and has nothing to do with us editorially, but I’ve always been a big admirer of Ars Technica. It feels feels similar to me to TPM in a sense of how it was founded, that it is a sizable but still a mid-sized/small site, that’s been very creative about its business and editorial model. They’ve had a subscription system going back before we had Prime, which goes back to 2012, so that’s just a site that I’ve always been interested in.

In terms of other sites, even though The New York Times and The Washington Post are obviously just altogether different operations than us, in scale and a million other ways, they have moved to what I would call porous paywalls and that’s something that I’ve watched to see how it’s evolved.

I guess in general, for better or worse, I don’t think most of the changes that we’ve made over the last three or four years have been tied to watching other sites. It was more things kind of internal to us or just watching the industry in general — and seeing how other publications have failed or had problems, and thinking about why that was the case and what that says about the trajectory of the industry.

Marshall:: Yeah, we’ve made one hire, and I’m hoping that we’re going to be able to announce one or two more over the next several weeks. Investigative journalism has always been a very big part of what we do. The site’s big successes over the years have been tied to investigative or muckraking journalism, and what I have spent a lot of time focusing on over the last three to four years is building a business model that makes TPM not just operating in the black and healthy, but also stable — that we build more and more stable revenue sources.

I’ve wanted to make a more determined and concentrated investment in investigative journalism. What we mean by investigative journalism will be different from what a lot of other places mean, but coming out of last year, with what we’ve been doing with subscriptions and all of that kind of business model work has put us in a position to do this.

We already had something like this in mind before Trump was elected, before I really thought he would be elected, so we have kind of fine-tuned it, given the times we’re living in. But it was something that, in a broad sense, we already had in mind coming into 2017. It’s the product of readers demonstrating their confidence in us by subscribing, and in that way, being a big part of allowing us to keep the site healthy and growing — albeit when we say growing we’re talking about hiring three reporters, not the way that startups grow or something. That’s why it is, it really grows out of the evolution of the business, our longstanding interest in and commitment to original reporting and investigative journalism, and having those two things come together over the last year or so. I think, and hope, it’s dramatically more relevant now that we have President Trump, who obviously is a sort of a job creation machine for investigative journalists.

We’ve learned a lot over the last few years about how to construct a business model that allows a substantial but still relatively small news organization to thrive. It’s taken a lot of trial and error and experimentation, but we’ve been, it sounds corny to say, but we’ve been incredibly appreciative and gratified that we have an audience of committed readers who have stepped up and made all of this possible. It gives us all warm fuzzy feelings. We’re still the same smallish site, but we see what is happening in other parts of the industry, and we are very lucky to have the audience that we have.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     June 29, 2017, 11:33 a.m.
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